The Common Good
May 2012

Fun, Fantasy, and Other Deep Truths

by Richard Vernon | May 2012

Nick Harkaway, writer of novels that brim with humor and meaning, talks about legacy, not-so-silly writing, and the moral to our stories.

NICK HARKAWAY’S second novel, Angelmaker, is out now through Knopf. His first, The Gone-Away World, found favor with fans of boisterously literate science fiction. Angelmaker is, in many ways, tipped from the same mold as its predecessor. It is unapologetically fun (with a particularly English sense of humor familiar to fans of Stephen Fry and Douglas Adams), stuffed full of blisteringly creative ideas and digressive subplots, and shot through with darker undernotes. In it Harkaway asks some large questions about (among other things) the nature of identity, who owns the truth, the dark side of the will to power, and the true cost of the preservation of stability. The novel also makes a strong case for the power of compassion, courage, and the glory of imagination used well.

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Angelmaker follows two alternating threads. In one an irreverent and intelligent orphaned girl, Edie Banister, is recruited into wartime secret service with the Ruskinites, an order of men and women devoted to beautiful craftsmanship who have been roped into weapons development. She rescues and falls in love with a genius who is using microscopic clockwork to build a supercomputer that will reveal the truth and end war. This “Apprehension Engine” (the titular Angelmaker), is baroque and bizarre; the force field of truth is to be disseminated by mechanical bees swarming from clockwork hives around the world. Naturally, an unreconstructed dictator wants to use it as a weapon of mass destruction.

The second thread is the present-day tale of Joe Spork, as he attempts to lead a humble, honest life until he is manipulated into adventure by the elderly Banister and pursued by the now-corrupt and terrifying Ruskinites.

In both Spork and Banister, Harkaway has created compelling protagonists. Banister is a fabulous character, a strong, smart woman (one of several in the novel) who, for instance, will not allow herself to excuse murders in self-defense that were almost entirely necessary.

Even so, Banister plays second fiddle to Joe Spork, a man who is dodging the legacy of his father, an infamous criminal, while emulating his late grandfather, Daniel, even reviving his forebear’s business as a repairer of clockwork devices. The trauma and growth Joe goes through as he loses his best friend, finds love, and discovers the deeper truth about the weighty inheritance from both father and grandfather is what drives the novel, and makes it so very satisfying.

Harkaway, as novelist John Le Carré’s son, has some weighty inheritance of his own. Le Carré is best known for his George Smiley spy novels, which are back in the limelight because of the recent hit movie based on one, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Ahead of Angelmaker’s publication, I chatted with Nick Harkaway, via (this being 2012) tweets, emails, and a trans-Atlantic conversation between Brooklyn and London, constrained at each end by our respective young daughters. Harkaway is as warmly intelligent in conversation as his fiction had me hope. I teasingly accused him of being nothing more than Le Carré Jr.—all spies and global concerns, but with more explosions and less nuance (this last an outright lie I threw in for comic effect).

“Well, yes,” he replied. “That is biologically true, and I think personally inevitable and enormously reassuring. We carry our parents within us and are carried in turn by our kids. And inevitably that is also our greatest trial: With history as the frame of the self, how do we avoid the mistakes of the past? And I think the answer can only be: with intelligence and compassion. Which is fine. What else is it all for?”

As a novelist raised by a novelist, he has some clear ideas of why he writes.

“The novel is a statement of identity, and it’s narrative, and hopefully it’s fun, but it can be a tool. As the novelist, I created a situation in a preposterous landscape, with clockwork bees and the rest of it, but hopefully something resonates in the real world. If it provokes even a moment’s introspection or consideration, it’s been effective. My hope is that if someone compares their reality to the one they just experienced in the novel, it can be educative. Problems come about when people run the program of their profession without stopping to examine it. Art helps us to check the program, to examine what we are. I want [my fiction] to be fun too. It is fun. Hopefully. Unfortunately ‘Fun Writing’ is de facto ‘Silly Writing,’ and dismissed. Whereas I feel fun can be revealing, caustic, and critical.”

Harkaway’s fiction is fun, but he’s not shy of folding a message into the mix and framing questions—in writing and in conversation—in boldly moral terms.

“The left-right divide is decreasingly useful. We’re framing 21st century problems within a 19th century discussion. The issues are multi-polar, and we’re intent on pursuing them in a binary way, in a two- or three-party system.”

This is so similar to a line familiar to Sojourners readers a few years ago, “move beyond the tired old categories of left and right,” that I cite it. When I get to “find common ground by moving to higher ground,” Harkaway chuckles and says, “I’d settle for taking care of the ground we have.”

“We need to broaden our concepts of what’s possible, to think in terms of 100-year, rather than four-year, cycles. We have to do the job that’s in front of us; we have to actually do the right thing—even when it’s painful.

“The legacy of George W. Bush—which spread to Tony Blair and others and has set the tone for global and domestic politics—is to not face the hard ethical choice, but to take the easy way out and say it was hard. That’s how we end up with Guantánamo and its ilk, rather than the rule of law. That excuse, ‘If the world was a better place, then ...’ is a kind of surrender to evil.”

Angelmaker contains a harrowing and psychologically vivid depiction of brutal interrogation and torture. It’s profoundly affecting—and effective. I ask him how he feels about his fictional representation of torture given the torture-porn of TV shows such as 24.

“I feel pretty robust about it—it’s almost entirely from the character’s point of view and it’s presented as a supreme wickedness. We [in the democratic West] are casually abrogating long cherished rights and freedoms.”

I ask Harkaway where this framework and worldview come from. He admits to a great-grandfather who was a Congregational minister, though, being broadly agnostic, Harkaway avoids explicitly religious statements in his fiction.

“I give my stories a moral center, and it’s essentially a pretty solid, recognizable one. My characters find themselves in a moral mess, but it’s always pretty clear to us which way they should jump. Why? Well, partly because that provides a spine to the story. And partly because hey! After a day living in the real world, we deserve a rest. Not everything has to be complicated all the time.”

Richard Vernon is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, New York.

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